Kepler's laws of planetary motion

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German mathematician and astronomer. Probably the best known Kepler's discoveries are three laws of planetary motion. In the 16th century, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published the work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. In this book Copernicus presented the heliocentric theory as an alternative theory to Ptolemy's geocentric model, which made a revolution in understanding the universe.

However, Copernicus theory was more qualitative than quantitative. Further progress was done thankfully to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) – who collected very accurate data on planetary motion and Johannes Kepler – who interpreted it. Kepler established that planetary orbits are not circles but ellipses! It was impressive discovery, especially having in mind very small eccentricities of orbits. First two laws Kepler published in 1609 in the book Astronomia nova, whereas the third low was published in 1619 in the book Harmonices Mundi. Kepler's laws appeared as observational facts. On the the other hand, they follow from the mechanical laws.

Tycho Brahe is known as the greatest astronomer in the pre-teleskopic era. He was both maker of instruments and observer. His measurement of celestial bodies motion and other astronomical phenomena was very detailed and precise. In 1572 he observed supernova star named Tycho's Supernova after him. The same type of phenomena Kepler discovered in 1604. This supernova is known as Kepler's Supernova or Kepler's star. It is believed that these discoveries, showing that there are changes within stars, contribute to the new ideas about motion and location of the Earth in the universe.

In this article we are going to show all three laws of planetary motion. The matter will be presented on a high school level. We begin with a consice review of the ellipse, that is essentioal geometric curve in the context of Kepler's laws.

Figure 1. Linear eccentricity (c), major (a) and minor (b) semi-axes as basic parameters of the ellipse. Source. flysky
Figure 1. Linear eccentricity (c), major (a) and minor (b) semi-axes as basic parameters of the ellipse. Source. flysky
Figure 2. Three essential relations for the ellipse.
Figure 2. Three essential relations for the ellipse.

Ellipse

The size and the shape of an ellipse is defined by the eccentricity e and one of the semi-axes, either major semi-axis a or minor semi-axis b.

The eccentricity is sometimes called numerical in contrast to the linear eccentricity c. As Figure 1 shows major and minor axis are the lengths connecting pairs of extreme points on the ellipse. Linear eccentricity is the length between the center and a focus.

Numerical eccentricity is defined as ratio of linear eccentricity to major semi-axis (equation 2). The major semi-axis, minor semi-axis and linear eccentricity are connected by the Pythagorean theorem (equation 1).

One of the basic characteristic of the ellipse is that sum of lengths between a point T to foci is constant and equal to the major axis (equation 3). It can be shown that the average length between a point T and a focus is equal to the major semi-axis.

As an exercise let calculate how far from the Sun will Halley's comet be in the moment when it stars its return journey? The length of major semi-axis is 17.8 au and the eccentricity is 0.96.

Firstly, using equation (2) we can calculate liner eccentricity c. The final result is the sum of c and major semi-axis a.

Haw to draw an ellipse knowing values of semi-axes?

We can easily draw an ellipse knowing relation (3). The following is the algorithm.

  1. Draw two perpendicular lines and mark points A, B, C, D (as in the Figure 1).
  2. The length OB take with compass, then put compass in point C and mark foci.
  3. Randomly choose few points T1,T2,... on the length CD.
  4. Put compass in F1 and draw part of circle of radius A-T1.
  5. Put compass in F2 and draw part of circle of radius B-T1, and mark both interactions with previous part of circle.
  6. Repeat step 4 and 5 for other chosen points. The more points are chosen the more precise ellipse.
  7. Connect obtained intersections.

First Kepler's law

1. A planet is moving around the Sun along an ellipse, with the Sun at one of the focuses.

So, the first law tells us that the orbit of a planet is an ellipse. The point of ellipse at which two bodies (the Sun and a planet) are in the closest position is called the periapsis (or pericentre). Contrary, the point of farthest approach is called apoapsis (or apocentre). A planet change its velocity during a cycle. The highest speed is in the periapsis, while the minimal speed is in the apoapsis. This follows from the fact that gravitational interaction between a planet and the Sun is the strongest in the periapsis and gradually decline towards the apocentre.

Planets in our Solar system have very small eccentricities of its ellipses. For example, our ellipse has eccentricity of 0.017, neighboring Venus has 0.007, Jupiter 0.048. Apart of Pluto, Mercury's path has the highest eccentricity, 0.206.

Although this laws is usually formulated specifically for the Sun system, it worth generally. Thus, for any other planetary system. Also, it is possible that a celestial object move along an parabola or hyperbola instead of an ellipse. In every case, the central body is in a focus. These conic sections are called Keplerian orbits.

As an illustration of this consideration, Table 1 shows basic orbital elements for several celestial bodies in the Solar System. Apparently, eccentricities of an orbit could be very different from almost a circle like in case of Venus to the almost borderline case of Helley's comet path. Namely, when the value of an eccentricity is 1 than the path is not an ellipse but parabola. In case that eccentricity is grater than 1 the path is hyperbola. Astronomical unit (abbreviation: au) is the length between the Sun and Earth.

Figure 5 roughly compares orbit shapes. There is nothing physically neither in the center of ellipse nor another focus.

Figure 5.  (a) The shape of the orbit of Mercury, which has the highest eccentricity (e=0.2) among the Solar system planets. (b) The shape of the ellipse of Halley's comet. Comparison of major semi-axes of Halley comet to Mercury. Source: flysky
Figure 5. (a) The shape of the orbit of Mercury, which has the highest eccentricity (e=0.2) among the Solar system planets. (b) The shape of the ellipse of Halley's comet. Comparison of major semi-axes of Halley comet to Mercury. Source: flysky
Celestial body
Type of body
Major semi-axis
Eccentricity
Orbital period
Mercury
planet
0.38 au
0.206
0.241 yr
Venus
planet
0.72 au
0.007
0.615 yr
Earth
planet
1 au
0.017
365.25 d
Pluto
dwarf planet
39.44 au
0.251
248.4 y
Moon
Earth's satellite
384400 km
0.055
27.32 d
Adrastea
Jupiter's satellite
128500 km
0.001
0.29 d
Hygiea
asteroid
3.13 au
0.117
5.56 yr
Halley's comet
comet
17.8 au
0.967
75.6 yr
Table 1. Orbital elements for some celestial objects in the Solar System.

Video 1. An animation of motions in the Solar System. One can see orbits of inner and outer planets as well as of some comets, including Halley's comet. Distances between bodies and orbital periods are nicely compered.


Figure 6. The second Kepler's law says that  a line connecting the Sun and a planet 'sweeps out' equal areas during equal intervals of time. Source: flysky
Figure 6. The second Kepler's law says that a line connecting the Sun and a planet 'sweeps out' equal areas during equal intervals of time. Source: flysky

Second Kepler's law

2. Areal velocity of a planet is constant.

The "normal" velocity can be understand as a line distance which is swept out by a particle per unit time. However, we can define a term areal velocity. Imagine now the area which is “swept out” by a line connecting the Sun and a planet. Areal velocity of a planet is this area per unit time. So, instead of line that is traveled here we have an area. Fascinating fact in the Solar system is that the areal velocity of a planet is constant!

In other words, a line connecting the Sun and a planet sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. Figure 1 illustrate this facts: if times required for sweep out the marked areas are equal than these areas are equal as well.

Figure 7. Three forms of the third Kepler's law: for the Sun system (4), general form of one body problem (5), general form of two body problem (6).
Figure 7. Three forms of the third Kepler's law: for the Sun system (4), general form of one body problem (5), general form of two body problem (6).

Third Kepler's law

3. The cubes of the major semi-axis of an orbit is proportional to the square of the orbital period.

So, until now we have learned that the planet moves along a very special curve – an ellipse. Moreover, although it changes the velocity all the time, there is something constant related to the speed. We have a nice rule: areal velocity of a planet is constant. Finally, there is one more, third, rule in the planetary system.

The third Kepler's law puts in a relation the distance of a planet from the Sun and its orbital period. It states that the cubes of the major semi-axis are proportional to the square of the orbital period. More precisely, in case of Solar system it holds equation (4). So, the constant in the law is 1 (with the declared dimension) which follows from the general form (5). This general form, expressed in relation (5), holds for any planetary system, where M is the mass of the central body and G is the gravitational constant.

If we actually deal with two body problem, then in equation we have masses of both bodies (6). For example, in case of the system Pluto and its moon Charon we have to use (6) since the mass of Charon by Pluto is not negligible.

Case studies

The mass of Jupiter

Orbital period of Europe, Jupiter's satellite is 3.551 day. The value of major semi-axis of this Galilean moons is 670900 km. Calculate the mass of Jupiter.

Solution: The result follows form the relation (5). We can assume that Europe-Jupiter is one body system, which means that the equation (5) holds. Thus, we have

r3/ P2= (6.70 * 108 m)3 / (3.551*24*3600 s)2

= 3.20 * 10-9 * 1024 m3s-2

= 3.20 *1015 m3s-2

Now we can easily use obtained semi result in order to calculate the value of mass:

r3 / P2 = GM / (4π2 ) → M = (4π2 / G) * 3.20 * 1015 m3s-2 = 1.89 * 1027 kg

where G = 6.67 * 10-11 Nm2kg-2 is the gravitational constant.

The orbital period of Uranus's satellite

The mass of planet Uranus is 8.66*1025 kg. Its satellite Ariel has the major semi-axes of 191020 km. What is the orbital period of Ariel?

Solution: Again, we will use the third Kepler's law. From the equation (5) it follows P2 = a3 * 4π2 / GM . When substitute values into this relation,we finally have result P=2.52 day.

Phobos and Deimos

The planet Mars has two satellites, Phobos and Deimos (and together with the Moon they are the only satellites of the terrestrial planets). The first one orbiting at 9500 km from the center of Mars, whereas the Deimos orbiting at 24000 km. What is the orbital period of the satellites is the mass of Mars if 0.107 of the mass of the Earth.

Solution: Since this exercise is quite scholarly, here we will give only final result, without instructions and comment. The orbital periods are 7.8 and 31 hours, respectively.

Check your knowledge and have a fun :-)

Summary


Video 2. A planet's elliptical orbit around the Sun.

The highest velocity of the planet is periapsis, the point on the ellipse that is closest to the Sun.

Contrary, the smallest velocity is in the apsis, a point oppositee of the periapsis.


Kepler's laws of planetary motion:

  1. A planet is moving around the Sun along an ellipse, with the Sun at one of the focuses.
  2. Areal velocity of a planet is constant.
  3. The cubes of the major semi-axis of an orbit is proportional to the square of the orbital period.


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Comments 4 comments

harshad2011 profile image

harshad2011 4 years ago from India

That's awesome!! I can't believe someone can Explain Kepler's laws @ planetary motion in that simple language. I appreciate it.

If in case you are trained in Advance Physics, why don't you write about quantum physics, specially Particle Physics in easy to understand language.


flysky profile image

flysky 4 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia Author

Thank you very much! I am really happy if the article is readable. (Yes, my first degree was in physics.) Quantum physics is one of my favourite branches of physics; thank you for idea, which is great. Depending on my time, I will try to prepare something :-)


nishlaverz profile image

nishlaverz 4 years ago from N.E England

Thanks for this great and easy to understand hub.


flysky profile image

flysky 4 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia Author

Thank you! The hub is based on my lectures in this subjects, but here I was concentrate more on multimedia and slightly less on quantitative approach. Since the subject is very attractive for me I have decided to write the hub.

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